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Women's Comedy Night Deemed Offensive

I am writing to express my concern about an evening of "comedy" held Saturday night, advertised as "Out For Laughs: a Wild Night of Women's Comedy" and put on by Sojourner and the MIT Women's Studies program. Based on the reports of close friends who saw it, I can say that I consider it to have been obscene, offensive, and entirely inappropriate for performance on the MIT campus, let alone during Campus Preview Weekend and with the encouragement of MIT faculty and the use of Institute funds. But I will try not to dwell on my own feelings and opinions here because they are more-or-less irrelevant, and because I was not present at the event myself.

In any case, on Saturday night, a couple of friends of mine (to remain unnamed in this letter) were looking for a few laughs, so they went to a comedy show. They were not merely disappointed, but very offended. In the first act, Betsy Salkind mocked their religion in a manner which seemed designed to maximize the pain of the offense taken if, heaven forbid, any Christians had been present in the audience. I would like to remind the MIT community that there is such a thing as religious harassment defined in the Institute Policy on Harassment, and that this act was in clear violation of that policy. Apart from this, it was disrespectful, inconsiderate, deliberately insulting, and just plain stupid. As one of my friends put it, it is pathetic to think that a comedian must resort to putting down a group of people in this way in order to draw a laugh.

The next routine, by Janice Perry, involved a detailed verbal and physical depiction of homosexual acts and the display of an exaggerated phallus, this time presumably to maximize the offense taken by men, and heterosexuals, and heterosexual men in particular. It is fairly clear to me, as it is to my friends who saw it, and as it apparently was to police who intervened in an earlier performance of this routine, that this act was pornographic in nature, and must be dealt with as such.

A couple of years ago, a graduate student by the name of Adam Dershowitz got into a great deal of trouble for showing a pornographic film in the Talbot Lounge of East Campus. In one way, publicity was more honest for that event than for this one, for it was publicized as an X-rated film, while "Out for Laughs" was billed as "An Evening of Women's Comedy."

This is not to say that what Dershowitz did was in any way acceptable. But based on the similarity of the two situations, I would like to suggest that if the Institute is to be consistent in implementing its pornography policy, it should act with respect to the organizers of "Out for Laughs" in a manner consistent with the actions it took against Dershowitz.

The performance on Saturday night was thus in clear violation of Institute policy on harassment and pornography. This letter is not a demand for action, but rather an expression of concern, for I am not sure that I know what kind of retribution is appropriate with respect to Dershowitz or "Out for Laughs" beyond a complete and sincere public apology. And action grows out of working through established procedures, not writing letters.

But on a more practical level, I would like to recommend a standard of personal behavior which will allow us to rise above all of this. That standard is this: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." More simply put, have some consideration and respect. If we choose to live by this standard as individuals, harassment will disappear entirely: no offense will be intended, and if any is taken, it will be apologized for in an acceptable manner. Let us consider our intentions and the consequences of what we do and say every day, and if they are to cause offense, then let us cease, for there is no place for harassment of any kind, sexual or otherwise, among responsible adults such as MIT students.

Adam C. Powell '92